Toyota executive bullish on auto industry, company

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

TUNICA – The automotive industry, like other industries, is cyclical, but it forgot about that during the halcyon days of 17 million vehicle sales.
So said Don Esmond, Toyota Motor Sales’ senior vice president of automotive operations, at Friday’s closing event of the Southern Automotive Conference.
“I’ve been in this business for 40 years, and it’s always been cyclical,” he said. “But I think we forgot about that. So when we had this big bump in the road, it was even bigger than most before because we saw sales drop 40 percent. Previously, the biggest drop was 20 percent. It was pretty tough.”
But Esmond, echoing the opinion of other auto industry veterans and observers, said sales appear to be stabilizing after a three-year tumble.
“It looks like the industry is on track to sell about 11.5 million vehicles in the U.S. this year, which is about a million more than last year,” he said. “I think next year we’re looking at 12 million and by mid-decade, we’re back to about 15 million.
“We’re still a little cautious, but there does appear to be some pent-up demand.”
On Thursday, Kim Korth, president and owner of global consulting firm IRN Inc., said she expected U.S. vehicle production to reach 14.5 million to 15 million through 2015.
Esmond noted that Toyota’s sales through September are up compared to last year and the company was still No. 1 in retail sales despite the negative publicity it got during the first half of the year.
Esmond didn’t shy away from Toyota’s recall of some 10 million vehicles. The Japanese automaker’s initial slow response to the problems turned into a public relations nightmare for the company, which was accused of acting too slowly and hiding information.
“We heard our wake-up call loud and clear,” Esmond said.
Toyota now is focused on becoming the industry benchmark in quality, safety and customer satisfaction, he said.
Esmond, who also visited the Blue Springs plant before driving to Tunica, said sales for the Corolla, which will be built at the facility next fall, continue to be strong.
“It was the No. 3 best-selling car last year, with a heavy push during the cash for clunkers deal, and this year, it’s still the No. 3 car,” he said.
Asked if a hybrid version of the Corolla might be built in Blue Springs, Esmond said that while Toyota has committed to extending its hybrid lineup throughout its products, there’s been no definite time frame for a Corolla hybrid.
The Toyota Matrix, which is built on the Corolla platform, will not be made in Blue Springs, said Toyota spokeswoman Barbara McDaniel. The Corolla and Matrix both were made at the NUMMI plant in California that Toyota co-owned with GM before it shut down in April. But both models also are made in Toyota’s Canadian facility. The Matrix will be made there.
When Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi hits full production, 90 percent of the Corollas bought in the U.S. will be made there, Esmond said.
Contact Dennis Seid at (601) 678-1578 or dennis.seid@djournal.com.